The common features of family breakdown around the world allow transnational comparison of advice provision. So, as examples of two different approaches, let’s put the national citizens advice site for England and Wales against MyLawBC. The latter is a survivor of the Rechtwijzer demise originally developed by the Legal Services Society of British Columbia (LSS) together with the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) and Modria (now absorbed into Tyler Technologies). The information on both is pretty similar and of a comparable depth; there are the same ‘red flags’ for those suffering from domestic violence and chances to be referred to lawyers; but the comparison allows a test of MyLawBC’s interactivity against the more conventional ‘linear’ approach of Citizens Advice.
For the purposes of this comparison,let us assume a pretty standard situation. A husband and wife with two children wish to split. They are living in rented accommodation. There is a degree of tension between the two but the consulting parent thinks there is a chance of an agreement on the issues between them which are mainly custody and maintenance.
First up is Citizens Advice. Family is one of nine areas highlighted in the strip at the top of its opening page. Click on this and you come to a choice of seven issues on which to click for further information plus a general search facility. Let’s go to ‘Ending a Relationship’. This gives us 18 options separated into four categories – how to separate; sorting out money; making agreements about your children; if you were living together. Go to ‘how to separate’ and a number of further choices appear, the most relevant of which seems ‘Deciding what to do when you separate’. This gives you a general section with a domestic violence ‘red flag’; a cross reference to possible visa issues for non-nationals (excellent lateral thinking); a link to a script on mediation and two drop down choices depending on whether you think you can agree matters with your partner or not. Information is then given under seven major headings. This includes practical information about dividing pensions; who to tell that you have split; and additional elements such as a link to the government website that advises on legal aid eligibility (basically, short of domestic violence forget it). You can get referred to the government service on child maintenance options. Another page gives more information and a link to a website run by another charity that will help you draw up a parenting plan. This phrases its choices in terms of emotional tensions (eg ‘I feel that I am the one doing all the work’) rather than blunt questions about, for example, money.
By contrast, MyLawBC has, at present, only four categories, of which one is ‘separation, divorce and family matters’. This offers to find a solution for you in 15-20 minutes. Note the domestic violence red flag and choose between ‘Make a separation plan’, ‘get family orders’ and ‘I’ve been served with a court document’ and you are off. You are offered a link to legal aid and told that ‘This pathway will give you the best available resources for your situation. It gives you a toolkit to help you understand and work on your family matters. And it gives you information on who can help you, such as professionals to help you and your spouse to work together, or where you can get legal advice.’
There are no general pages of advice as on the Citizens Advice site. Instead, a series of specific questions narrow down your question asking eg if you are married or have been living together; you then pass through a short page on options; more detail is required on how many children you might have and whether they are certain age categories; you pass more options to go to lawyers. You then get choices phrased like this:
How have the financial decisions you and your spouse made during your relationship affected each of you?
Check all that apply.
One of us will need financial help while they work towards being able to support themselves after separation.
One of us had financial opportunities because of the relationship. For example, they were able to work longer hours.
One of us lost financial opportunities because of the relationship. For example, they moved or stayed home to care for the children.
After we separate, one of us will be much better off financially than the other. For example, one of us will have a much higher salary than the other.
Our situation isn’t listed here.
Your answer generates a short piece of general information and more chances for lawyer referral. A series of specific questions identify more about your financial circumstances. You get a bit more general information and a chance to measure your partner’s communication skills. You then get the following very specific information:
Most couples resolve their issues without going to court. You can work together to resolve your issues. Or you can get help from lawyers and/or mediators.
A mediator is a neutral third party who helps you resolve your issues without going to court. Mediators are specially trained to help people reach agreements.
Legal costs vs. mediation costs
A two-day trial costs an average of $39,900. A five-day trial costs an average of $66,850. (Only your lawyer can tell you what the cost of a trial will be in your case.) (Sources: Canadian Lawyer Magazine, “The Going Rate,” June 2015; mediatebc.com.)
On average, paid mediation costs $3,044. Family justice counsellors can provide free mediation services.
If you indicate that you might be able to settle matters outside of court, you are taken to information on a separation plan which incorporates a video on mediation and allows you to download a plan or get taken to the ‘get family orders’ pathway. A separate dispute negotiation module will assist you in negotiating a solution.
You should consult these two sites and make your own determination of which you prefer. For me, MyLawBC is the clear winner – not because of its content but because of the way that it is presented. Sherry MacLennon, responsible for MyLawBC at the Legal Services Society reports that, despite the extended contract re-negotiation occasioned by the Rechtwijzer breakdown, ‘usage on MyLawBC is growing exponentially. We closed our last fiscal year on March 31, 2017 with 20,000 unique users of the site. This year, we are forecasting a 200% increase in users based on our first two quarters (20,403 users as at September 30th). We are extremely pleased with these numbers, particularly as we put our promotional plans on hold due to budget constraints and then the delays in upgrades associated with the contract negotiations. The guided pathway on making a separation plan has now edged out the wills & personal planning pathways as the most popular.’ The LSS is now implementing a pretty thorough independent evaluation of its site – which should be revealing.
There is one final point to make. MyLawBC was born of international co-operation and the sharing of ideas developed by HiiL and the Dutch Legal Aid Board. They were disseminated, initially, largely through a group of liaising legal aid administrators and academics, the International Legal Aid Group. It remains an international project linking Canadian and US input though LSS is making its local. It has just developed to trial phase its first internally created guided pathway. Says Ms McLennan: ‘our team was able to develop a new model using branching logic to build pathways that eliminates a number of the challenges we experienced with the Rechtwijzer. These relate to ease of maintenance and flexibility to adapt pathways in response to either changes in the law or user feedback.’ And, finally, as this piece illustrates, as different entities in different countries put their wares on the net, it becomes much more possible to conduct comparative analysis. A number of English projects are hoping to follow the Rechtwizjer/MyLawBC route. We will see how they do.
More generally, there are two future critical moments to come in the development of interactive advice. The first will arrive when highly respected, but conservative sites like Citizens Advice move towards being more interactive. The second will manifest when relatively static guided pathways, pre-determined for a limited range of users, are blended with artificial intelligence to provide infinitively flexible means of conveying information and advice tailored to the needs of individual users.